Whom Shall I Say Is Calling? Who Shall I Say Is Calling? Which One?
by Owen Fourie
Here are two words that make many wonder if they have said or written something incorrectly.
The use of the relative pronouns who and whom is ordered according to a simple grammatical rule.
The application of the rule might not always be easy, and this happens especially when a sentence is long and complicated.
This is a problem more in speech than in writing. When you are writing, you are able to check and correct what you have written.
What is the rule for using who and whom?
To understand the rule, distinguish between subject pronouns and object pronouns.
Position of Subject & Object Pronouns in a Sentence
I, we, you, she, he, it, they, who
me, us, you, her, him, it, them, whom
Object pronouns also serve as objects of prepositions
Three conditions expound the rule for using who and whom:
- If the required pronoun comes before the verb, it is a subject pronoun—use who.
- If the required pronoun comes after the verb (as direct or indirect object), it is an object pronoun—use whom.
- If the required pronoun follows a preposition, as the object of the preposition, use whom.
How can I make the right choice?
There is no choice to be made for the object of a preposition. Who cannot fill that position. It belongs to whom.
For statements and questions, you can extend the above rule to consider the action involved, and ask,
- Who is doing the action? The subject performs the action, so who is the pronoun to use. The athlete who won the gold in 1996 was there.
- To whom is the action being done? The action affects the object, so whom should be used. The athlete whom the press vilified was not there.
How should I apply this to questions?
When you apply this to questions, there is a trick* that can help you.
Supply a statement using the subject pronoun he or the object pronoun him, whichever fits, to answer the question.
- If he is right to use in your answer, use who in the question.
- If him is right, use whom.
Who/whom do you like best of all?
I like him best of all.
Whom do you like best of all?
Who/whom do you think will win?
I think he will win.
Who do you think will win?
Who/whom saw the game?
He saw the game.
Who saw the game?
Who/whom gave her the award?
He gave her the award.
Who gave her the award?
Who/whom would you like to see playing in the semi-final?
I would like to see him playing in the semi-final.
Whom would you like to see playing in the semi-final?
Who/whom have you seen in the players’ pavilion?
I have seen him in the players’ pavilion.
Whom have you seen in the players’ pavilion?
Doesn’t using whom sound stuffy and isn’t it becoming obsolete?
There is no doubt that the usage is changing, and who is being used more and more where whom should be used.
It is finding acceptance in day-to-day conversation and in informal writing, and even in some formal writing.
Nevertheless, you would be well advised to be familiar with the who-whom usage, as described above, and use whom, where appropriate, in your formal papers and speeches.
What is the correct choice in the title of this article?
Who/whom shall I say is calling?
He is calling.
Who shall I say is calling?
*I found the idea of using “he” and “him” in this useful grammar text: Elliott, Rebecca. Painless Grammar. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 1997. 198-99. Print.
If there are any points about who and whom that still puzzle you, please ask here for clarification. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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